When good interfaces go crufty

Thursday 24 July 2003

Matthew Thomas has a detailed rant called When good interfaces go crufty, about the historical artifacts we ask users to live with in user interfaces. I’m probably too much of a geek to fully appreciate his viewpoint. I remember reading Alan Cooper’s About Face, which also argued that File - Save was an unnecessary and confusing detail, and questioned the wisdom of removing it from UI’s.

But, some of his point clearly hit their mark, and he is absolutely right: interfaces gather cruft and it’s the poor user who suffers with it. I have my own real-life example of this sort of crufty interface stuff, and it’s crufty enough to have confused even an old and well-credentialed geek like me.

My wife writes opinion columns in Microsoft Word. She usually starts a new column by opening an old column, deleting all the text in it, and using File - Save As to save it as a new file. (I have tried to create templates that would let her have the same effect — the same style and layout for each document — but it has never worked to our satisfaction, and she “gets” this way of doing it.) When she puts in the new file name, she uses the title of the column (natch). Occasionally, when she tries this, nothing happens. Literally. Clicking the Save button doesn’t do anything.

Try it for yourself with this title: “Who Will Pay?”

Can you guess what’s going on here? A few things at once:

  • First, the File - Save As box, because it is a mini-explorer, is helpfully letting you look for existing files with that file name field, which is counter-intuitive, because the same field is used both to find existing files by name, and provide a new name for the current document.
  • Second, because the field will do searching, it is lets you use filename wildcards, (like the question mark in “Who Will Pay?”), and the presence of the wildcard means this isn’t a file name at all, it is a file pattern, and no saving will happen because you are stuck in the file-searching personality of the Jekyll/Hyde Save/Search field.

Removing the question mark makes everything work, but there’s got to be a better way to do this! This has happened to us at least three times, and it has baffled me each time.

Of all the people who have put question marks in the file name field of that box, how many of them wanted to have a question mark in the document name compared to how many of them wanted to do a fileglob search for documents with variability in the last character of the name? This is definitely a case of screwing regular people because of extreme geekiness carried through years of interface changes.

» react

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